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The Problem

Summary

It is no secret that certain tags attract very basic questions which are easily answered by even a novice. and come immediately to mind. Many of these questions are quickly closed as they do not represent useful content and, in the opinion of the community, will only degrade the quality of Stack Overflow.

Some users, however, answer these questions anyway. Some questions are, perhaps, borderline, while some users don't compeletely subscribe to Stack Overflow's concept of "on topic". Some users, however, know that these questions are of poor quality but are using them specifically to gain rep. You can spot them if you pay attention: repeating themselves, sometimes multiple times a day (occasionally even copy-pasting an answer), in attempt (I believe) to rapidly gain rep.

Statistics

In the past 12 months (from 2013-01-01 to the time of this posting), 33,851 users have gained 2 rep or more from a post closed within 24 hours of being created, for a total of 2,165,414 reputation points. 38 users have earned over 3,000 rep on these kinds of questions alone.

Why is this a problem?

I don't begrudge users who make it their business to answer every question on the site and who aren't terribly concerned about quality standards. I think they should be welcomed, for the most part, because, in their own way, they are trying to make the world a better place. In fact, Jon Skeet comes in at #1 from most rep earned on questions closed within 24 hours of creation. I've even answered a question or two because it was interesting, even though I knew it'd probably be closed.

But I don't think they (or I) should be earning reputation for those answers.

Reputation grants a user the ability to "do things" on the site (what else is it good for?). Privelges are associated with rep because rep is supposed to represent experience with the site. Allowing users to earn rep from questions that the community has decided don't belong here seems counter-productive. Since there's a delay between asking a question and closing it, some users are "gaming" the system by slinging off quick answers in an attempt to earn at least an upvote or two and maybe the much coveted "accept". I've seen multiple examples of users posting a stub "Answer is coming..." to get their foot in the door on a question they know will be closed. Of course, not all (or even most) of these users have nefarious intentions, but they are still gaining rep and priveleges for using the site in a way that the community has deemed unhelpful.

Downvoting answers to closed questions (as "not useful") doesn't fit our model. Neither would it be effective, as it would take 13 downvotes to "balance" a single upvote and "accept" from the OP.

My Proposal

I propose that reputation earned on answers to questions closed within 24 hours for any reason except "duplicate" be neutralized.

Why exclude duplicates?

Duplicates are a bit different from other questions. While off-topic, primarily opinion-based, etc, indicate that there's a problem with the question in and of itself, duplicates indicate that there's a problem with the question in the context of all other question asked on the site.

A user could easily read a question, recognize it as on-topic and answer it, not realizing that it'd been asked before (perhaps only once, with a significantly different title). Also, the answers to duplicates may, in many situations, provide additional information which is not included in answers to the "other question". Therefore, I think questions closed as duplicates should be excluded from neutralization.

Why 24 hours?

Two reasons:

  1. For question asked and closed in 2013, about 80% were closed within 24 hours of creation. The rest quickly tail off into days, weeks and months. A question which is not obviously off-topic (etc) will, naturally, take longer to attract the necessary close votes. If a question is not obviously off-topic, then users are clearly acting in good faith to answer questions and shouldn't be penalized because 5 other users who happened across it over the course of a week thought differently.

  2. Standards change. Questions which were once on-topic can become off-topic. Reputation earned in the past, and which has been cemented by a (relatively) long history, should not be taken away. Reputation on answers should only be neutralized if the question is off-topic according to the standards that day.

I could see one exception to the 24 hour rule: if the question is closed by a moderator, then perhaps neutralization should still occur. I hesitate to suggest this, however, because I'm not sure what the unintended consequences might be.

What About Reopening?

If a question is reopened, I see no problem with reputation being restored to answerers. Sometimes questions are closed in error (due to the Meta effect, etc), and users who've answered the question in good faith should have their rep restored.

Should this be Retroactive?

No, I don't think so. Seeing a giant drop in reputation all at once would not be the point of this proposal. The point is not to neutralize user priveleges McBain style, but to gently encourage users to stop pursuing these types questions for the rep.

What's the Goal?

My hope would be that users who are answering poor quality questions in bad faith (desiring only to earn reputation) would become discouraged over time and stop answering questions they know will be closed.

New users who don't understand the rules won't be greatly impacted because, in my opinion, they shouldn't be earning privelges for those answers anyway. Active users who make a point of answering nearly all questions will be somehwat affected, but not much. The average user earned only about 60 rep on these questions over the course of the entire last year (counting the handful of answers which earned net 0 or negative rep for the user) - not enough to cause any great harm if neutralized. Jon Skeet would be the biggest loser, at just under 12,000 points. (Again, though, this proposal would not be retroactive.)

Only users who are specifically pursuing these kinds of questions are going to feel any real sting from this proposal.

Servy put it well:

Yes, [discouraging users from answering questions which might be closed] is the goal here, to ensure that people are only providing answers to quality questions, and not answering low quality questions. Low quality questions are much more likely to result in low quality answers, be less discoverable, and not be helpful to other users. If people spend less time answering poor quality questions and spend that time instead on higher quality questions then this would have been a successful change. If it means that people asking questions need to learn to ask quality questions to get an answer instead of asking a bad question, then great.

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    I think we reached a consensus here: meta.stackexchange.com/a/194989/237685 that it was okay to downvote answers to obviously off-topic questions. – hichris123 Dec 31 '13 at 16:59
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    @hichris123 - Even so, it's ineffective as a deterrent if your goal is gaining rep, isn't it? Upvote + Accept - 5 downvotes = +15. Not bad. Multiply that by a dozen questions a week, and you have someone capable of editing questions in a couple months. – JDB Dec 31 '13 at 17:03
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    @hichris123 Despite that post, people don't actually do that very often. They might consider it okay if someone else does it, but it's a very rare practice to see in the wild, making it an ineffective deterrent to the behavior described in this question. – Servy Dec 31 '13 at 17:20
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    So because one user can't right a meaningful question (in terms of what the SE community wants) a second loses the ability to gain rep from providing a useful answer? – Joe W Dec 31 '13 at 17:35
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    @JoeW - Can you provide an example of a useful answer to a question which was closed in less than 24 hours? (Not as a duplicate) Because I can provide you over 2,000 counter-examples. – JDB Dec 31 '13 at 17:54
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    Quick search in perl shows 2 questions that where down voted and closed as off topic but have up voted answers that seem useful to me. Also after thinking on it some more with all the complaints about robo reviewers in different queues do we really want people losing rep because some robo reviewers got to close a question in the close vote queue? stackoverflow.com/questions/20091074/… stackoverflow.com/questions/20799353/… – Joe W Dec 31 '13 at 18:05
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    @JoeW - In both examples, the answerer has over 50k rep. What would be the harm in these two users losing a few rep points? In addition, both users have enough rep to know that the question is going to be closed. If they want to answer it anyway, they absolutely can. But why do they deserve rep for it? Again, remember that rep unlocks features of the site. Why should these answers count toward unlocking features when the users know that the community doesn't want these questions? How are they building the community's trust by encouraging the OP to ask more unwelcome questions? – JDB Dec 31 '13 at 18:34
  • Why should they be losing rep if other people found the question to be useful? What is the harm in unlocking new features? If these questions really that bad for the site shouldn't they just get deleted instead of locking them which would remove the rep? Honestly if you look at the numbers you posted outside of a few edge cases most people will have gained less then 100 rep from these answers which is not enough to unlock any features that would cause harm to the site or they would have enough rep to earn them from other means. – Joe W Dec 31 '13 at 20:18
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    @JoeW - But taken as a whole, tens of thousands of poor-quality questions are being answered, encouraging yet more poor-quality questions. We certainly can't stop all of it, but if users know that they won't earn easy rep on poor quality questions, perhaps it will stem the tide a bit. My point is that the rep gained on these kinds of answers is undeserved, based on what rep means and is used for. – JDB Dec 31 '13 at 20:25
  • Will this do more then cause people to wait 24 hours to answer a question in order to prevent possible loss of rep? – Joe W Dec 31 '13 at 20:27
  • That sounds more like a problem of getting rid of bad questions then removing rep from answers. – Joe W Dec 31 '13 at 20:27
  • @JoeW - Servy said it best. – JDB Dec 31 '13 at 20:34
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    Personally I think that's all this proposal will do is discourage people from answering questions. From their point of view, "why bother answering if its going to be closed for some reason I personally don't understand". We want to encourage answerers, not discourage them and drive them away. – Rachel Dec 31 '13 at 21:32
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    Somewhat related: Feeders, not help vampires, are the problem – Josh Caswell Jan 1 '14 at 20:04
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Want to "neutralize" the reputation earned from a bad post? Easy: delete it. There are rules in place that'll preserve reputation earned from some deleted posts, but in order for them to kick in the post has to score >= 3 and be at least 60 days old.

If you don't have the privilege to do this yet, then just maybe you should spend some more time answering questions yourself before worrying about what others are answering. In particular, if you're concerned about low-quality answers, leading by example and posting high-quality ones goes a long way toward making things better.

You can spot them if you pay attention: repeating themselves, sometimes multiple times a day (occasionally even copy-pasting an answer), in attempt (I believe) to rapidly gain rep.

If the answers are of poor quality, then down-vote them. This advice applies regardless of whether or not they're posted to poor-quality questions.

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    Nothing like working in the Close Vote Queue and coming across an obviously off-topic question with an accepted answer. The OP got what they wanted (and will probably come back for more) and the answerer got what they wanted (25 rep!) and will probably do it again. Closing will most likely have no effect and my piddly little -2 downvote is barely audible "tsk-tsk". Really, what's the point of closing it at that point? "Maybe", says the good-cop watching another mobster get off the hook, "I'm in the wrong business." It gets harder to fight that feeling everyday. – JDB Dec 31 '13 at 23:19
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    If you think what we're doing here equates to cops and mobsters, we have bigger problems than a few internet points. – Shog9 Dec 31 '13 at 23:23
  • What can I say? I have a flair for the over-dramatic. Still, the CV queue doesn't exactly net many points. Answering those questions currently has a much bigger payoff. – JDB Dec 31 '13 at 23:25
  • At some point then, you gotta ask yourself: "Am I solving a real problem here?" If it's a crap question attracting crap answers, then sure. If it's a crap question hiding better questions, absolutely. If it's a duplicate, then... Maybe - if there's a good original to point to. "What harm is this doing and what can I do to mitigate it?" is the question I ask myself repeatedly in all of the review queues... Sometimes, the answer to one or both parts of that is simply, "nothing." – Shog9 Jan 1 '14 at 0:14
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    @JDB "OP got what they wanted ... answerer got what they wanted" Who was hurt? Stack Overflow is a place to resolve problems. Yes, it would be nice if programmers with simple problems were able to resolve it themselves, but we are here, and we reward people for solving problems - even simple ones. You say the worst thing that happens is "they are still gaining rep and privileges" - which is bad in what way, exactly? Have they run amok and ruined the site with their ill-gotten powers? It may not seem fair to you, but is there really harm done, and is it so grievous it requires a "Fix"? – Adam Davis Jan 1 '14 at 8:17
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    I don't understand how what has been said here meshes with "high signal Q&A that makes the internet better". It sounds like the quality or topicality of questions doesn't really matter as long as the answers don't get out of hand. In which case, it's OK and encouraged to answer all the "how to match an integer followed by 3 letters with regex"-style questions my little heart desires, whether the community in general wants them or not. – JDB Jan 1 '14 at 23:47
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    It took a few days... but the wisdom in what you're saying is sinking in. Thanks. – JDB Jan 8 '14 at 15:33
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I like the idea of stopping poor quality questions by not answering them. Achieving that goal though is hard.

Stack Exchange also recognizes this goal. One of the main reasons questions are closed is to prevent answers from being posted on them. They also give you the tools to actively downvote posts and flag content for deletion. However, the fastest gun in the west is a quick shooter. Often questions get answered before they are closed.

There are so many questions being asked that there is a certain level of risk assessment answerers take into consideration. They weigh the value of answering versus the value of potentially closing and do whichever weighs more to them. Usually this will probably error on the answering side. Note that even the great Jon Skeet, with 600,000+ reputation, cannot close a question on his own.

There are also a lot of questions that have already been asked, and most of them have answers. If the amount of new questions were to significantly decrease, it probably would not cause older questions to receive more answers than they already have. This is because the new questions are problems right now and that makes the OP far more attentive. Most users do not want to solve an old problem which already has a solution.

Gamers are gonna game. Change the rules, they will change their play. Lose reputation for closing a question in your inbox, navigate to the question and click re-open. With the low amount of traffic on the question after a few days, and the way that close votes get buried in the review queue, this will leave a lot of low quality questions open in the end. The rate of re-opening these questions will accelerate from its current rate due to gaming the system.

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I disagree. Those answers are still useful to others, and still deserve rep. For example, a question asking "How do I do X in Y language?" probably could easily be found by a Google search, and may or may not be closed within 24 hours for showing minimal effort.

However, that question will still bring in traffic from Google, as it will show up high in the search rankings, provided that the question is worded properly.

Also, the answer will probably be useful to the OP, and the OP trusts the answerer for that answer. Rep is a rough measure of how much the community trusts you, and therefore if the community trusts you on your answer to a closed question, then you should get rep from it.

There's also the people losing massive amounts of rep problem. We'd lose a bunch of people who were previously active 10K+ mods and 3k+ close votes reviewers. That would be harmful to the site.

  • Did you read my proposal in full? I specifically addressed retroactivity. – JDB Dec 31 '13 at 17:14
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    Also, the majority of closed questions aren't useful, which is why they were closed. I hate it when my search results are cluttered with a bunch of useless Q/A's, don't you? – JDB Dec 31 '13 at 17:17
  • Actually, the more I read your answer, the less relevant it is. I can't see anything there that actually addresses anything in my proposal, other than that usefulness to the OP is a good indicator of whether a user "deserves" rep... not a strong argument. – JDB Dec 31 '13 at 17:25
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    +1 Just because somebody did not show enough effort, or did not include an SSCCE or whatever, and the question ends up closed, does not mean that the answers are not useful. Closed question != not useful especially after the new off-topic close reasons – user000001 Dec 31 '13 at 17:26
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    @user000001 - There will always be edge cases that the system cannot compensate for. But while you are talking about theoreticals, I have provided hard statistics that show this is a widespread problem. Users can "game" the rep system by supplying sloppy answers to extremely basic questions before the community has had a chance to close it. Why do those users deserve rep? And what harm does it do to the active user who occasionally answers one of these questions? 60 rep avg over the course of a year is miniscule and easily compensated for. – JDB Dec 31 '13 at 18:39
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    @user000001 If there is potential for a really useful question in there, and clearly people capable of providing answers with real value in them, then it will provide pretty strong incentives for the question to be improved so that it can be reopened, rather than leaving a mess of a question around to get a lot of traffic just because someone provided a good answer there. That's A Good Thing. – Servy Dec 31 '13 at 19:22
  • @Servy I don't know about other tags, but in the one's I am frequent, the most common close reason is the minimal understanding one, where the OP did not show what he tried. This has nothing to do with the question being useful or not, clear or not, well written/formatted etc. and these cases can't be improved by anyone other than the OP. So you are left with closed questions, usually with good answers. I just don't see the reason to punish the people that try to be helpful, even if it means that some people end up with more rep than they deserve. – user000001 Dec 31 '13 at 19:43
  • @secretunicorngremlins The main problem with these type of measures, is that there is a danger of discouraging the answerers. I fear that if this is implemented, more questions will be unanswered (and not only the closed ones), just because some people will be afraid that the question will end up closed. In general, I think that we should try to encourage more answers, not less. And if some people "game the system", and earn some extra rep, so be it. – user000001 Dec 31 '13 at 19:47
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    @user000001 Yes, that's the goal here, to ensure that people are only providing answers to quality questions, and not answering low quality questions. Low quality questions are much more likely to result in low quality answers, be less discoverable, and not be helpful to other users. If people spend less time answering poor quality questions and spend that time instead on higher quality questions then this would have been a successful change. If it means that people asking questions need to learn to ask quality questions to get an answer instead of asking a bad question, then great. – Servy Dec 31 '13 at 19:54
  • @user000001 - Answerers are already discouraged by the balooning list of bad questions. – JDB Dec 31 '13 at 19:59
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    @Servy Wouldn't everyone be better served if there was more focus on preventing low quality questions in the first place then worrying about the answers to them? – Joe W Dec 31 '13 at 20:36
  • @JoeW - There have been many suggestions on how to prevent low quality questions. Short of a secret ninja force tracking potential anonymous users and taking them out before they click "Submit", it's generally agreed to be an impossible task. – JDB Dec 31 '13 at 20:58
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    @JoeW There already are, and this is one more method. If people know that they'll get quality answers no matter how bad their question is then that's a very strong incentive to work around every possible mechanism to put in place to get quality questions. Users don't care about downvotes, closures, popups, mod messages, angry comments, etc. as long as they get their answers. Any method for combating bad questions that still results in them getting an answer is going to be largely insufficient. – Servy Dec 31 '13 at 22:11

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